World’s Largest Democracies

Last November the Heads of Government of the world’s two largest democracies dined together at the White House. This was the first time President Obama has hosted a visit on this scale. That this honor was given to Manmohan Singh was no coincidence.

Just as Barack Obama is the first African American to become President of US, Manmohan Singh is the first Sikh to be Prime Minister of India. While Obama has to cope with infantile rumors that he was born abroad, Singh actually was – or, rather, he was born in what was then British India, but is now part of Pakistan. Both have excellent academic backgrounds: Obama has degrees from Columbia and Harvard and taught at Chicago. Singh has degrees from Panjab, Cambridge and Oxford and taught at Dehli.

There are major differences, as well as parallels. Singh is much the older of the two. At 77 he is almost 30 years Obama’s senior. He is in his second term as Prime Minister, having previously served as Finance Minister. Obama overcame the dynastic ambitions of his party’s most prominent family. Singh was plucked from relative obscurity to become Prime Minister by Sonia Gandhi, the Italian born matriarch of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. There is a widespread view that, some time during this term of office, Singh will retire in favor of one of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi’s children.

In policy terms, Singh is a free trader. As Finance Minister he was responsible for dismantling India’s notoriously complex and corrupt regulatory regime. India’s healthy economic growth in the decade and half since then has stemmed from this policy. Obama would be well advised to copy it, but is much more likely to move in the opposite direction. India’s ‘recession’ is marked by a slowing of economic growth to 6.1%, almost twice what the USA experiences in a good year.

This is not to say that India does not have scope for a great many more reforms. If you exclude agriculture (employing some 60% of people but earning only 17% of the country’s income) and small businesses, there are more people employed by government than the private sector. This includes the notoriously overmanned state railways and the civil service. Multi-million dollar bureaucracies are sometimes run without a single computer. This, in a country which runs the computing of many an American business.

Perhaps they discussed healthcare. Some 40% of employees in India’s government run healthcare system do not turn up for work. This is worse than in government schools, where the figure is ‘only’ 25%. If he understood the problems of India, Barack Obama might not be in such a rush to nationalize America’s healthcare.

More optimistically, they could have talked about alternative energy sources. Efficient solar panels would enable India – rich in solar resources – to leapfrog the building of an electricity grid straight to decentralized generation in every village, or even every home.

And at the end of dinner, when reviewing everything their countries have in common: representative democracy, the common law, the English language, perhaps the two men raised a glass to the two hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the destruction of the French fleet off Brittany, the turning point that left British forces in control of both India and North America. Without that battle, both their countries would look very different today.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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